David Kaiser’s 2008 book on the assassination of John F. Kennedy was one of the first serious attempts to thread reams of newly declassified government documents into an objective, coherent narrative of the events leading up to November 1963. One of the most compelling passages in a book quite full of them arrives, though, when Kaiser rehearses the course of history after JFK died, and all that may have differed had he not. That passage, which closes Kaiser’s The Road to Dallas, is excerpted below.
Few events in American history have had more extraordinary short, medium, or long-term consequences than the assassination of John F. Kennedy. For the next eighteen months or so the assassination seemed to have cemented the liberal Democratic ascendancy in postwar America. President Johnson promptly seized the moment of national grief to break a legislative logjam, and by the middle of 1964 he had secured passage of the first major postwar tax cut, the omnibus Civil Rights Act, and his own proposals for a War on Poverty. And in November 1964 he defeated Barry Goldwater far more decisively than Kennedy probably would have, and substantially increased Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. That in turn enabled him to pass Medicare, a big education bill, the Voting Rights Act, and a great deal more during 1965. Not all this legislation would have passed under Kennedy. At the same time, since Kennedy had no intention of pushing for a “Great Society,” he would not in all probability have provoked quite as much backlash as Johnson did.
In foreign affairs, the impact of Kennedy’s death was even greater because of President Johnson’s almost immediate decision to undertake the Vietnam War, making it impossible to pursue the détente that Kennedy had just begun with the Soviets. JFK had repeatedly refused to fight a war in Southeast Asia. In retrospect, however, the combination of a large draftee army, a never-ending series of Cold War trouble spots around the world, and the American political process would very likely have led to some similar war sooner or later. More important, with the coming of age of a new generation, the postwar consensus was doomed in any event. The Boom generation’s rebellion was especially intense because of the Vietnam War, but it would have happened in any case because it reflected a deeper historical dynamic.
During the last forty years Boomers have undone their parents’ work in one area of life after another, from the movies, television, and sports to academia, the corporate and financial world, and—beginning in the 1990s and continuing until today—politics, government, and foreign policy. The death of the most outstanding politician of the GI generation and the disastrous war that his successors waged accelerated this process, but they did not cause it. Perhaps because the established order was liberal and Democratic, the most powerful rebellion against it has been conservative and Republican, and this movement has destroyed much of the spirit and many of the institutions built up from the 1930s through the early 1960s. The assassination of a popular president with the help of a mail-order rifle started a gun control movement, but the backlash among gun owners has, ironically, been much more powerful. It played a significant role in the increasing Republican ascendancy from 1980 through 2004.